What do Jackie Mason’s death, an Aufruf, and Parshas Eikev have to do with one another?
This is not a riddle; it’s what keeps rabbis like me up at night.
The answer, my friends, is Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky. Remember him?
Hyman Krustofsky is the father of a fictional character known as Krusty the Clown, a beloved personality on the Simpson’s. The voice of Hyman Krustofsky was none other than Jackie Mason.
Today, I’d like to share with you an analysis of Season 3, episode 6 of the Simpson’s. My mother, G-d bless her, would lose her mind knowing that the show she was most appalled by in the 90’s is the source of my sermon today. Ima, the show is still terrible, but the moral line of scrimmage has moved so far that the Simpson’s is now the 2021 version of Leave it to Beaver.
The reason I’d like to discuss this episode of the Simpson’s is because it is an excellent source-text for the many true role of love in Judaism.
For those joining us as guests, welcome to Ner Tamid! Where we acknowledge that virtually everyone in this community has watched the Simpson’s and try to make that meaningful.
If you’d like to walk out on me, now is a perfect time…
Okay, so there’s this guy called Krusty the Clown; he’s depressed, he’s antisocial, he’s an addict. He hates himself and yet, the children love him. Krusty the Clown is an outsized reminder to something we all know – that fame and adoration do not, on their own, bring joy.
Where does his depression stem from? The writers of the Simpson’s never make it clear. But in Season 3, episode 6, we learn about his childhood. It turns out that Krusty is Jewish. Not only is he Jewish but his father was a rabbi, and his father was a rabbi, and his father… you get the point.
The story goes that Krusty’s father, Jackie Mason, AKA, Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky, wanted his son to be a rabbi, but Krusty was not interested. Krusty wanted to go into showbusiness. And yet, he didn’t want to hurt his father. Eventually he does go into comedy, his father finds out, and banishes his son from his life, wanting nothing to do with him.
Now I’m going to pause because there’s a certain irony here. As many of you know, Jackie Mason was born Yakov Moshe HaKohein Maza. His father was considered by some to be on par with another fellow Lower East Sider – HaRav Moshe Feinstein. Jackie Mason came from a long line of esteemed rabbis and his father desperately wanted his son to become a rabbi. I’ve always wondered how Jackie Mason felt taking on this role of Rabbi Krustofsky, giving voice to what was likely very similar conversations his father had with him.
And it begs a question that every parent must face. We all have dreams for our children, we all want them to be healthy, to not inherit our flaws, only our qualities, to succeed in life, to be contributing members of society and good Jews. In an earlier generation, parents could tell their children what to do, they could make demands from their children. But sometimes it went too far, especially as it pertained to religion. In a flashback scene from that episode, we find Krusty’s father strangling him when he implies that he’s not interested in Judaism. There are many Krusty’s who felt strangled, not literally but figuratively. Collectively, as a Jewish People, we realized that fire and brimstone approach was the wrong one and so the word love and the word joy were rediscovered and brought into our spiritual lexicon.
But unfortunately, the pendulum has swung too far. Whereas in the past, parents were too strict, they’re now too lenient. Whereas in the past parents would not think twice before correcting their children’s every mistake, they now are afraid to give their children any direction. And there are terrible consequences. Children crave structure. Children need structure. Rules are crucial to the development of self-discipline. Rules and structure are the greatest gifts a parent can give their child. These are gifts they may not appreciate today, but they will regret not having them in the future.
To be clear, this is not a Jewish problem; it’s a societal problem. But as Jews it gets a little more complicated. I hear from parents who don’t want to push their children too much so they “pick their battles.” They will push their children to study and to get them tutors and to find support until they get straight A’s in math and science etc. But when it comes to Jewish practices or Jewish studies, “I don’t want to be too strict.” Or my favorite, “I want my children to discover the beauty of Judaism on their own.” I’ve never heard anyone say, “I want my children to discover the beauty of math and English on their own. If they want to go to school, it’s their choice.” If it’s real to you, if you believe that the Torah is a way of life, that G-d is real and we Jews have a special role to play, this ain’t the place to let the children decide.
So how do we find that balance? The balance between not strangling the child and not being afraid to discipline her? Between the seriousness of our calling as Jews and the joys of having a relationship with our Creator?
I am really not sure. I don’t have a formula – I wish I did. What I do know is I do know is that each and every parent must seriously grapple with this question of how we calibrate strictness with compassion, our vision of who our children should be with who they want to become, our respect for their choices and the conviction of ours.
Should we get back to the Simpson’s?
Bart and Lisa learn that Krusty is estranged from Rabbi Krustofsky and they devise a plan to reconcile father and son. Lisa does some research and sends Bart to go persuade Rabbi Krustofsky. And the two of them, Bart and Rabbi Krustofsky take part in a debate of sorts. Bart says, “Rabbi, does it not say in the Talmud that you should bring close with the right hand and push away with the left?” To which the rabbi responds, “Yes, but it also says, Honor one’s mother and father.” Bart says, “The Torah says that one should be soft like a reed and not stiff like a cedar.” To which the rabbi responds, “Yes, but it also says, You should study the Torah day and night.”
It’s an amazing dialogue and one to the credit of the writers of the Simpson’s that was well-researched. Unlike some other modern shows that depict Orthodox Jews… (H/t Eli Liebowicz) Maybe I’m reading too deeply into this but there’s much more than a fight over Biblical teachings taking place between Bart and Rabbi Krustofsky.
Bart is speaking to the meta of Judaism, some of the big ideas; compassion, flexibility, and change. Rabbi Krustofsky is speaking to particular Mitzvos; Kabed es avicha v’es imecha, and the Mitzvah of studying Torah.
There is a constant tension in Judaism between the forest and the trees. There are denominations within Judaism who only focus on the forest, the big ideas of Judaism, like justice or being a light unto the nations, and they ignore the trees, like Shabbos, Kosher, and Taharas HaMishpacha. There are other denominations that do the opposite; they study Torah, they keep all the Mitzvos to the tee, but there are no guiding principles, and they live a spiritually myopic life, uncaring about a larger role they have been asked to play in the world.
The Torah portion we read today, begins and ends with the details of the Torah, most famously, “V’haya im shomo’a tishme’u…If you keep my Mitzvos.” And G-d lays out the ‘tree’-version of the Torah; do what’s right and you get rewarded, do what’s wrong and you get punished. It’s a small-minded vision.
But then in the center of the Parsha, Moshe poetically calls out, “Mah Hashem elokecha sho’eil mei’imach, what does G-d really want?” What’s the big picture? What’s this really all about? “L’yirah es Hashem” to be in awe of G-d. “ul’ahavah oso” and to love Him.
You see, Rabbi Krustofsky and Bart were both right. Judaism, like any relationship, is made up of tremendous and powerful feelings expressed in small and seemingly insignificant ways. All relationships are fueled by a vision of deep and passionate love. But it’s generated by small gestures; by putting our phone down and making eye contact, by filling up a tank of gas and taking out the garbage, by allowing yourself to lose an argument and by giving a word of encouragement. Our relationship with G-d, no different than our relationship with other humans, has a big picture and many small details that bring the picture into focus.
Now the Rambam has a different take on the contradiction between the small-minded vision of the Torah; mitzvos and aveiros/ reward and punishment, and the big picture of love. He suggests, in his commentary on the Mishna, that there are stages and levels in our relationship with G-d. When we are young and immature, our relationship with G-d is one of details, instructions, and reward and punishment. I’ll do what’s right and give a Mitzvah note from G-d. That’s who the section of V’haya im shomo’a is speaking to. But as we progress, as we mature, as we become spiritually sophisticated, our connection to G-d which is so much more than this Mitzvah or that Mitzvah. It blossoms, or is meant to blossom, into a relationship of respect, awe, and love.
What the Rambam is speaking to is that in every relationship, there are levels. People say they fell in love with someone. Cool. That’s great. Guess what? You can fall in love with the same person again. And again. And again.
If you constantly invest in your relationship, the depth and the passion are endless. If you’re constantly looking to find new ways to give, if you’re open to the fact that you never really know your significant other and you approach them with a constant state of curiosity, you will fall in love over and over and over again.
In the final scene of that Simpson’s episode, Krusty the Clown is reconciled with his father. There’s no conversation between the, no explanations. They see each other and with tears in their eyes, they embrace. For an episode with so much depth, I was hoping for more dialogue, for them spending a little more time discussing their differences, until they could properly reconcile. Is it really accurate that father and son see each other after all these years and just embrace in love?
Dr. Erich Fromm, in his book, the Art of Loving, suggests that love is not natural to us. The Sefas Emes in this week’s Parsha, disagrees. Addressing the question of how the Torah can mandate us to love our fellow Jew and how the Torah can mandate us to love Hashem, the Sefas Emes writes that love is innate. There is a nekudah, a dot, a spark of love that exists within each and every one of us; a love for children, a love for a spouse, a love for everyone, and ultimately a love for G-d. That spark of love is waiting to explode, to burst out, to find an expression. Yes, a father and son who have been estranged for years can see each other and their love can find true expression immediately.
One final story – which brings us back to where we began, the overlapping stories of Krusty the Clown and Jackie Mason. In what was likely the final interview with the famous comedian, Rabbi Moshe Taub, a rabbi and historian met up with Jackie Mason and his wife to talk growing up in the Lower East Side. In the process of the interview, they got talking about Jackie Mason’s relationship with Rav Moshe Feinstein. Mason received his semicha from the famed rabbi, and the interviewer was curious about their relationship, especially after Jackie Mason dropped out of the rabbinate and eventually stopped observing Jewish Law. Taub was shocked to learn that Jackie Mason and Rav Moshe through all the years.
Unable to contain himself, the rabbi asked the comedian, “What did Rav Moshe say to you in those meetings?” In other words, how did Rav Moshe respond to this former student of his who walked away from the rabbinate and observant religion as we know it?
Jackie Mason looked Rabbi Taub in the eyes and told him: There was only one message he conveyed to me in every one of our conversations. Love, love, love.
While this story is both beautiful and shocking, it really should not be. In today’s Haftorah, we read how the Jewish People, after having sinned the most horrendous of sins, assumed that G-d had forsaken them. How could G-d have anything to do with such sinners? Why would He want to stay in touch in any way?
And Hashem lovingly responds, “Does a mother forget her child?!” Of course, I will never forsake you. You are my child, and I love you.
Love gets a bad rap in Judaism. Ask an academic and they’ll tell you that love is a Christian trait. Ask some of the most observant Jews and they will poo-poo love. They’ll argue for yiras shamayim, the fear and dread of Heaven, but love, they’ll tell you, is fluff.
And it’s just not true. Love is paramount in Judaism. Love is the core emotion in Judaism; a love for one another, a love for oneself, and a love for Hashem.
Yes, as we discussed, it needs calibration. And at the same time, if done right, we could fall deeper and deeper in love; falling for our loved ones and for G-d time and time again.
And that is our bracha to you, Hillel, and to all of us… That we appreciate the central role of love in Judaism. That we all recognize that we have the capacity to be loved and to love. That we all learn to appreciate the value of the trees and the value of the forest; never losing sight of one for the other. And that we all experience the incredible joy of falling in love over and over and over again.